Ansan, Korea has been my adopted home for three years. It’s a nice city, but not one of immediate charms.
When you arrive for the first time you can’t help but notice the many drab, concrete high-rise apartment complexes towering over the landscape; garish neon that illuminates everything from strip joints to churches; litter strewn streets, overcast skies, and pollution.
A fairly typical suburb of Seoul, in other words.
But I would be doing this city an injustice to suggest that it doesn’t offer anything beyond a rather poor first impression.
There’s a lot to love in Ansan, you just have to look for it. Take Asia Town, for example.
Take a Trip to Asia Town
If you live in Ansan, Asia Town needs no introduction; if you don’t call Ansan home, Asia Town is as good a reason as any to visit.
Sprawling behind Ansan Station on Seoul Metro Line 4, Asia Street – which actually encompasses a number of city blocks — features shops, restaurants, and street vendors from Malaysia, China, Nepal, Russia and plenty of places inbetween.
For years the area was just a typical Korean neighborhood. After the building of Ansan Korea Industrial Park in the late-90′s, however, things began to change.
Located on the city’s westside, Ansan Korea Industrial Park is the kind of place a Korean Bruce Springsteen might sing about: smokestacks and refineries, blue-collar types, difficult, dangerous work. People from all over Asia are employed here and Asia Town caters to these folks, affording them a place to go where they can enjoy the tastes, smells, sounds, and culture of back home – wherever “back home” might happen to be.
Korea is one of the most culturally and ethnically homogenous countries in the world, so this sort of multiculturalism is a rare thing. And at least as far as I’m concerned, it’s a welcome deviation from the norm.
With all the restaurants available on Asia Street it can be difficult to choose one. A few weeks back Jinah and I were in the area and decided to finally try Samarkand, a restaurant specializing in Uzbek food that we’d both heard plenty of good things about.
Here’s the short and sweet review: savory meat and potatoes, delicious beers, affordable prices, decent service – eat here! Hit the bottom of the post for directions.
For those of you who’d like a meatier meat and taters review, read on.
But first, a bit of historical context.
A Side of History with the Main Course
Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia. It is also home to the sixth largest population of Koreans outside of the Korean peninsula. The story of how these Koreans came to live in Uzbekistan is a story shaped by one of the great tragedies of the previous century, but to begin to tell it we must go back to the mid-19th century.
These were days of confusion and instability throughout Asia and Russia: the Opium Wars saw China’s subjugation to Western imperial powers, revolution was brewing in Russia, Japan was on the ascendency, and the Joseon Dynasty – which had ruled Korea since 1392 – was decadent and unable to cope with the many changes brought on by modernization.
Amid this volatility some Koreans chose to immigrate, settling in the Russian Far East. The Russian government was glad to have these newcomers as it afforded them a means by which to develop the farthest flung corner of their empire, and in the 1880′s Koreans were granted the right to register as Russian citizens.
In 1905 Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War – the first ever victory of an Asian country over a European power. Immediately following this victory Japan claimed Korea as a protectorate, annexing the country in 1910. It was a time of unbelieveable hardship and many Koreans were forced to abandon their native land. While most of these refugees immigrated to China, a sizeable number joined the Korean community in Russia.
By the interwar period there was something like 180,000 Koreans living in the hills and farmlands around Vladivostok. Calling themselves Koryo-saram they were a respected minority of the Russian empire.
This respect, however, did not spare them from Josef Stalin’s genocidal policies.
Fearing that Japan would use the Korean population around Vladivostok as a means of infiltrating Russia, Stalin signed “Resolution 1428-326cc” in August 1937 forcibly relocating the Koryo-saram to Central Asia – primarily in the regions that are now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — and making them the first peoples of the Soviet Union to be deported.
Despite many difficulties, the Koryo-saram in Central Asia quickly adapted to their new situation, establishing themselves first as gifted farmers and laborers, and then in subsequent generations as highly skilled professors, engineers, and other professionals. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 some Koryo-saram made the decision to return to Korea, taking advantage of housing subsidies and other incentives offered them by the Korean government.
Ansan, in fact, is home to a small community of repatriated Koryo-saram and on the evening we dined at Samarkand a group of them chattered away in (presumably) Uzbek over their meal.
If any of this has been interesting to you (hello, fellow history nerd!) check out Dr. German Kim’s summary of the Koryo-saram. Fascinating stuff.
Yes, that was quite a detour for a restaurant review. But I have long been curious about the Korean diaspora in Uzbekistan and even this cursory, imperfect understanding of its history provided me with a richer culinary experience at Samarkand.
Speaking of that culinary experience I should probably talk about it, right?
Meat and Taters
Jinah and I opened our meal with a serving of samsa – a light, flaky pastery stuffed with boiled cabbage, onions, and lamb. The samsa was warm, fragrant and thoroughly delicious. A single samsa runs 3,000 won.
For our main courses we went with two lamb dishes.
Jinah ordered kazan kabob – stewed lamb served on the bone and garnished with a pile of raw red onions. When I say the meat was succulent, I’m talking about it literally falling right off the bone. The flavor was mild but not boring, and the meat – while certainly not lean – wasn’t a mass of fat, either. The kazan kabob is 8,000 won.
I went with chiz bif – baked, seasoned lamb atop a bed of french fried potatoes and garnished, like the kazan kabob, with raw red onions. When they brought my meal to the table it was like my stomach wanted to reach out and high five me. My heart, on the other hand, openly wept. I’m guessing the calories and trans fat on this bad boy are hellish. The taste, though? Heavenly. The chiz bif is reasonably priced at 8,000 won.
All of this was washed down by “Russian Beer No. 9″ which, unlike the infamous love potion of the same number, didn’t smell like turpetine or look like India ink. It was a dark, punchy ale somewhat reminiscent of a Chimay with an 8% abv. A genoursly sized bottle goes for 6,000 won.
Vegetarians and/or health-conscious diners may not find much to like at Samarkand. They do offer borsch – a traditional Uzbek soup made from boiled cabbage – but the rest of the menu is either meat, fried, or both. If that is the kind of food you like to cheat with every once in a while, plan to arrive hungry and leave satisfied.
Directions: From Seoul board the Seoul Metro Line 4 (the light blue line) heading in the direction of Oido. Get off at Ansan Station and exit crossing under the four-lane road (heading north from the subway station). Once you’ve crossed under the road continue heading north up the main stretch of Asia Town. Walk two blocks and turn left at the side street. Samarkand will be on your left.
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